NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sim Bhullar knows it is going to be a tall order but the first NBA player of Indian descent believes that, like Yao Ming in China, he can trigger basketball frenzy in the country his parents left before he was born.
Former Houston Rockets center Yao, an eight-time All-Star, triggered NBA-mania in China after being selected first overall in the 2002 draft and went on to become his country’s wealthiest and most recognizable athlete.
That is unlikely to happen to Toronto-born Bhullar, who at 7ft 5in (2.26 meters) is an inch shorter than Yao.
Bhullar, who was not drafted, signed just a 10-day contract with Sacramento Kings last month and played only three games before embarking on a tour of India, where basketball is much less popular than it was in China pre-Yao.
Still, as he conducts basketball clinics in cities across the country, Bhullar is drawing inspiration from the former Houston Rocket in his bid to change a sporting landscape where all other sports play very much second fiddle to cricket.
“Yao did a great a job, being an ambassador and just being the guy for the youth in China,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“I’m trying to get on the path that he did. Being here, it’s been good so far. I’m just trying to inspire the youth and show them the dream is possible.
“They can dream about something bigger than just being in India and traveling the world playing basketball. That’s pretty much my goal.
“There is so much skill here ... hope I can be a role model.”
The 22-year-old turned professional last year following two years at New Mexico State, where he was a two-time Western Athletic Conference MVP.
Bhullar initially signed with the Kings last August and played 39 games for their development league affiliate the Reno Bighorns, where he averaged 10.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Bhullar admitted having Indian expatriate and software entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive as Kings owner helped him.
“Me and Vivek have a very good relationship. It’s great to have a guy you can talk to. We’re really good friends. It’s great to have a guy like him in my corner.”
Together they hope to make Kings the ‘home’ NBA team for the world’s second most populous nation.
“You walk around and you see a lot of Kings t-shirts and jerseys,” Bhullar said. “It’s great to see here. NBA has been big here, it’s actually growing.”
His height poses practical disadvantages — ducking under most doors on his India tour — but the hulking 360-pound center has no complaints.
“Lot of disadvantages but the advantages are greater,” he said. “Just being a little bit slower than everybody but my height makes up for it. I guess it works both ways.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney